Book Review by Savannah Dicus: Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis

The Black Lives Matter movement has inspired an emergence of prison abolitionist
thought as more people realize the unjustness of our justice system, including me. I’ve never thought about what a world would look like without prisons before. I thought police were corrupt, but prisons? Prison abolition is still regarded as radical, but is being actively considered by the public like never before. To properly engage with prison abolitionist thought, I decided to read what is considered the landmark book by Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? In her 2003 book, Davis thoroughly challenges the reader by exposing our social conditioning regarding prisons. Her primary thesis is that imprisonment is a racialized social institution rooted in the control of Black labor and the rise of capitalism. She thoroughly discusses the history of imprisonment in the United States and how it is used to deposit the detritus left behind by the unrelenting pursuit of profit: minorities and low income communities. She argues that prisons are obsolete due to the fact that they do not fulfill their intended purpose of reforming individuals, but instead act to remove “undesirables” from society and place them in similar conditions to slavery. She calls for decarceration and to shift our focus from retribution and vengeance to reparation and reconciliation. This book left a huge impact on me, from inspiring me to advocate for prison abolition to further analyzing the interconnectedness of the prison, capitalist, and racist systems.

Davis opens by explaining the collective thought around prisons and why prison abolition
is considered unthinkable. Most prison “activists” arguments are concentrated on how to make prisons better. Davis states that prisons are so ingrained in our social order that they are considered “natural”. In order to make clear to the reader the unnaturalness of prisons, Davis deconstructs the effects of the Reagan era mass expansion of prisons. She gives a staggering statistic: “In 2003, the U.S population in general was less than 5% of the world’s total, whereas more than 20% of the world’s combined prison population.” In 2020, the U.S population is 4.25% of the world’s total and 22% percent of the world’s combined prison population.

Mass incarceration has been the most thoroughly implemented government social program in U.S history. It is fascinating that prisons can simultaneously be the most thoroughly implemented social program but also the least questioned. Many other countries have the overpopulation and conditions of their prisons examined by human rights organizations but there is an obvious lack of discourse surrounding U.S prisons despite holding 22% percent of the world’s prison population. Davis seeks to explain this phenomenon, and begins by explaining the emergence of mass incarceration. To do so, she uses the state of California as a case study: “Nine prisons, including the Northern California Facility For Women, were opened between 1984 and 1989. Recall that it had taken more than a hundred years to build the first nine California prisons; in less than a single decade, the number of California prisons doubled…The racial composition of this prison population is revealing. Latinos, who are now in the majority, account for 35.2 percent; African Americans 30 percent, and white prisoners 29.2 percent”. She uses this statistic to transition into her central question of the first chapter: Why were people so comfortable with an increasingly large number of the U.S population? Why was there no outcry?

Davis frames the expansion of prisons within global capitalism. She starts by including
research by geographer Ruth Gilmore who describes the expansion of prisons as a solution to socio-economic problems, a response to surpluses of capital, land, labor, and state capacity. Gilmore states: “The State assured the small, depressed towns now shadowed by prisons that the new, recession-proof, non-polluting industry would jump start local redevelopment”. Davis then provides a reason as to why California legislators and voters would approve the construction of all the new prisons: the promise of progress. People wanted to believe that prisons would not only reduce crime, they would also provide jobs and stimulate economic development in rural areas. Migrating corporations leave communities in shambles. Communities with a lack of economic base affect education and social services, turning the men, women, and children who live in these communities into perfect candidates for prisons. Davis explains this phenomenon profoundly: “The prison has become a black hole into which the detritus of contemporary capitalism is deposited”. Having the “detritus” deposited out of our sight excuses us from engaging with the actual problems of our society: racism and global capitalism. Prisoners are seen as the problem of our society rather than a symptom.

There is a fascinating dichotomy of prisoners being both seen and unseen. She explains
that we are constantly confronted with media images of prison so much so that its existence is indoctrinated into our ideologies of punishment. According to cultural critic Gina Dent: “The history of visuality linked to the prison is also a reinforcement of the institution of the prison as a naturalized part of our social landscape. The history of film has always been wedded to the representation of incarceration. Thomas Edison’s first films included footage of the darkest recesses of the prison. Thus, the prison is wedded to our experience of visuality, creating a sense of its permanence as an institution.” Davis supports this by providing a list of prison films and TV series, such as I Want to Live, Papillon, and The Big House. This chapter reminded me of how almost every high schooler is made to watch the Stanford Prison experiment. We learn to recognize that humans can do horrific things when placed into certain roles, but never why these roles exist in the first place and if the victims of the experiment can perform these acts, why not actual prison guards? Cops? How is it that I have never questioned the existence of a prison genre? Why are we as a society so detached from the realities of prison that images of such as used as entertainment? Is this detachment purposeful? Does the media constantly produce images of prison to train our subconscious mind to racialize crime and in some communities, to expect imprisonment?

Prisons are racialized social institutions. Davis deconstructs the prison by revealing
innate similarities between prison and social institutions of the past such as slavery and
segregation that were seen to be as “everlasting as the sun”. Davis seeks to answer her titular question “Are prisons obsolete?” by exploring how prisons do not achieve their intended purpose as defined in the 18th century and how they instead mirror conditions of slavery. According to Davis: “The design of the penitentiary was to provide convicts with the conditions for reflecting on their crimes and through penitence, for reshaping their habits and souls.” Davis states that the penitentiary was a vast improvement over the many forms of capital and corporal punishment inherited from the English, but even today holds many similarities to slavery. Historian Adam Jay Hirsch lists examples of similarities, such that both institutions subordinate their subjects to the will of others, reduce their subjects to dependence on others for the supply of basic human services such as food and shelter, isolate them from the general population, and frequently coerce their subjects to work for longer hours and for less compensation than free laborers. Hirsch also reveals that founding father Thomas Jefferson recognized the similarities between the two institutions and opposed sentencing slaves to penal labor due to the fact that it would not make a difference in their condition.

Davis continues by explaining the way race has had a role in the way we construct
presumptions of criminality. To do this, she starts with the institutionalization of a set of laws called the Black Codes, that prescribed a range of actions such as vagrancy, absence from work, and insulting gestures or acts that were criminalized only when the person charged was Black. Additionally, slavery has never truly been abolished due to the 13th Amendment exception: “Slavery and involuntary servitude were abolished ‘except as a punishment for crime, wherof the party shall have been duly convicted’”. The fact that this exception itself has not called for a constitutional rewrite by the masses is indicative of the way not only laws underhandedly reinstate racist institutions but how our education has failed us. The law has had a profound effect of the racialization of crime. Discussion on this topic in particular is seen today, but mostly to call out the dog whistling politicians use by calling for “law and order”. I would like to pose the question why we are able to recognize the language of “law and order” and “tough on crime” as racialized language but not take the ideological step further in questioning the racialization of prison?

I think most of us subscribe to the idea that we can never get rid of our roots. If we can
agree to this when it relates to our personal journeys, why not the criminal justice system?
According to Davis, in the immediate aftermath of slavery, the southern states sought to develop a criminal justice system that could legally restrict the possibilities of freedom for newly released slaves. The southern states designed their criminal justice system this way to make Black people the prime targets of the convict lease system. The convict lease system was a state punishment system in which the state would lease out convicts to perform forced penal labor. Davis provides a startling statistic to support that states created these laws specifically to imprison Black people: “Before the 400,000 Black slaves in Alabama were set free, 99% of prisoners in Alabama’s penitentiaries were white. As a consequence of the shifts provoked by the institution of the Black Codes, within a short period of time, the overwhelming majority of Alabama’s convicts were Black”. The expansion of the convict lease system defined southern criminal justice largely as a means to control black labor. According to Matthew Mancini: “Among the multifarious delibitating legacies of slavery was the conviction that Black people could only labor in a certain way – the way experience had shown them to labor in the past: in gangs, subjected to constant supervision, and under the discipline of the lash”. This quote reminded me of the fact of the difference between how Black and white marijuana dealers are perceived. Black dealers, who make large sums of profit, are more likely to be seen as “criminals” for selling a widely used recreational drug rather than white dealers who are seen as “self made entrepreneurs” and “essential workers”. This difference is enough to drive the point home that crime is racialized, therefore the prison system that provides “justice” to racialized crime is a racialized institution. Further, prison serves as a detritus for Black entrepreneurs who sell an otherwise decriminalized drug for example, thus serving capitalism as it exists in practice, not the most liberating economic system but one that will always find a victim to keep in its place.

The second half of chapter two further explores the convict lease system to forge the
innate connection between racism and capitalism. Davis cites Alex Lichtenstein, who identifies the convict lease system as the central institution in the development of a racial state: “New South capitalists in Georgia and elsewhere we able to use the state to recruit and discipline a convict labor force, and thus were able to develop their states resources without creating a wage labor force, and without undermining planters’ control of black labor”. The convict lease system was used as the most efficient and rational way to swiftly achieve industrialization in the South. Ibram X. Kendi, author and founding director of the Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center at American University once described capitalism and racism as “conjoined twins”, and I think Davis echoes this effectively by stating that while convict lease systems were abolished in 1941, its structures of exploitation have reenerged in the patterns of privatization. This poses an interesting question of if racism can be untangled from capitalism? Racist social institutions such as slavery and the convict lease system were pursued in interest of the state’s capitalist benefit. Can you be anti-racist without being anti-capitalist? Can you be anti-capitalist but not be anti-prison? Personally, I don’t think you can truly separate a symbiotic relationship.

Chapter five introduces the prison industrial complex, or an array of relationships linking
corporations, government, correctional communities, and media. The centralized argument of those who use the term “prison industrial complex” is that prison construction and the attendant drive to fill them with human bodies have been driven by ideologies of racism and the pursuit of profit. Returning to her case study of California, Davis states that the California penal system had already begun in the 1990s to rival agribusiness and land development as a major economic and political force. She begins discussing the prison industrial complex by introducing its symbiotic partner, the military industrial complex. She calls the relationship between the two symbiotic because the two complexes mutually support each other, often sharing technologies. The transference of technologies from the military to the law enforcement industry can be seen by observing the military grade weapons used against Black Lives Matter protesters. Both prison and military industrial complexes generate huge profits from processes of social destruction. These processes of social destruction, Davis adds, are advantageous to corporations, elected officials, and government agents who have obvious stakes in the expansion of these systems that bring grief and devastation for poor and racially dominated communities in the U.S and around the world.

Punishment no longer constitutes a marginal area of the larger economy speaking that over 4,100 corporations benefit from mass incarceration (Corporate Accountability Lab). Some major corporations that currently use or have used prison labor are Walmart, McDonalds, and Whole Foods. In addition to being used as free labor by corporations, Davis also reveals that American medical research programs relied on prisoners as subjects after World War 2 to help hasten the development of the pharmaceutical industry, essentially the “raw materials” for postwar profit-making and academic advancement. However, it was not until the 1980s that the punishment economy truly began. It is not a coincidence that the mass construction of prisons, the deindustrialization that led to plant shutdowns and job layoffs, the disestablishment of AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) and other welfare industries, and the privatization of previously government run services all occurred at relatively the same time. Davis argues that massive amounts of prisons were constructed during this era to house the “human surplus” created by the unprecedented pursuit of profit and the dismantling of the welfare state.

Davis dedicates the latter half of the chapter to discussing how prison privatization trends are reminiscent of historical efforts to create a profitable punishment industry based on the new supply of “free” black male laborers with the convict lease system. She provides a startling detail: “The racial composition of the incarcerated population is approaching the proportion of black prisoners to white during the era of the southern convict lease and county chain gang systems”. Again, if the prison system is so clearly racialized, can you be anti-racist and not be anti-prison? Davis uses fascinating language to describe Black identity when it comes to the prison industry, that Black people are considered dispensable in the “free world” but a major source of profit in the prison world. This may be a reason why Black people face longer sentences and recidivism is encouraged.

In her last chapter, Davis imagines abolitionist alternatives to prison. She provides
several steps to do so, the first of which is to let go of the expectation that you can discover one single alternative system that can fill the gaps of the prison system. She reminds the reader that the prison system is a set of symbiotic relationships among correctional communities, transnational corporations, media conglomerates, guards unions, and legislative and court agendas. Therefore, she argues that the most effective abolitionist strategies will contest these relationships and propose alternatives that pull them apart. Powerfully, she states that schools are the most powerful alternative jails and prisons and prioritizes the end of the school to prison pipeline. According to Davis: “Unless the current structures of violence are eliminated from schools in impoverished communities of color – including the presence of armed security guards and police – and unless schools become places that encourage the joy of learning, these schools will remain the major conduits to prisons”. Along with the prioritization of education, it is important to provide access to healthcare for poor people who suffer from severe mental and emotional illnesses, such that there are currently more people with mental and emotional disorders in jails and prisons than in mental institutions. She also calls for the decriminalization of drug use in order to challenge the huge numbers of people brought into the prison system by the “War on Drugs”. As an alternative, Davis suggests free community based programs accessible to all people who wish to tackle their drug problems. Davis argues that creating agendas of decarceration and broadly casting the net of alternatives as stated above helps us to do the ideological work of pulling apart the conceptual link between crime and punishment. We cannot blindly accept the “punishment fits the crime” of our criminal justice system today. Davis expertly states: “Punishment does not follow from crime in a neat and logical sequence, but rather punishment – primarily through imprisonment – is linked to the agendas of politicians, the profit drive of corporations, and media representations of crime. Imprisonment is associated with the racialization of those most likely to be punished”. If we as a society effectively address the conceptual link between crime and punishment by demilitarizing our schools, prioritizing learning in poor and minority communities, providing universal health care, decriminalizing drug use, we can render prisons obsolete.

Are Prisons Obsolete by Angela Davis carefully deconstructs prison by examining the
origin of imprisonment, its usage as a tool to reinstate institutionalized slavery, and its
connections to capitalism. I don’t think Davis’s purpose in writing Are Prisons Obsolete was to certifiably answer questions, but rather create them. It is not surprising that this book is used as a guiding text in later books written about prison abolition since Davis created a well-written and easy to understand framework to understand prison abolitionist thought. She effectively removes the reader from the mindset of retribution our society places us in and questions the ulterior motives of our justice system. I think the topic of prison abolition is not widely discussed in human rights circles due to the ideological attachment of crime to punishment. We discuss the conditions of prisons in the United States and internationally, but not why are prisoners there or if imprisonment is the best solution to making societies safer. Are prisons going to be another outdated social institution that future human rights scholars will study? I’m not sure due to the fact of the deep entrenchment of capitalism in our global society. I think everyone should read this book and question internal biases surrounding imprisonment.


Savannah Dicus is a junior at the University of North Carolina Asheville. She is majoring in Political Science and double minoring in History and Human Rights. Savannah is a founding member of Dignity’s Student Editorial Board.

Leave a Reply